A Conversation between Jacques Rancière and Bert Rebhandl
Bert Rebhandl (B.R.): This talk has a title, and it is part of a bigger series that has yet another title. The title of today is “Spielräume des Kinos,” which is also the German title of a book which in French is titled “Les écarts du cinéma” and in its English translation is titled “Intervals of cinema.” We can already see that these terms open up very specific and quite different fields of meaning. The other title—the title of the series that has been going on since Tuesday and started with a lecture by Siegfried Mattl at the IFK—is “The Invisible Cinema.” This is also the term with which I would like to start our talk with. Invisibility with regard to cinema is not a notion that we would immediately agree on or subscribe to, and so I would like to ask: Mr. Rancière, what comes to your mind immediately, what do you associate with this notion?
Jacques Rancière (J.R.): Invisibility in cinema is, of course, related to the great hero of this place, Peter Kubelka, who coined the term. This was connected to his own view of cinema, which is at the same time a cinema that we cannot see and also a cinema which, in a way, tells that all the rest of cinema is invisible—a cinema that cannot be seen or must not be seen, perhaps. Now we are not going to have a discussion about Peter Kubelka’s notion, but we are trying to think what that means: invisibility in cinema. It may seem strange because cinema is supposed to be an art of the visible for many people, an art which, in a way, is too visible, some art of the cave, an art for people who can only live in the world of images. But, at the same time, it is important to remember that invisibility is also part of cinema, and firstly the art of the moving image is an art, where the image ceaselessly produces its own invisibility. Which also means that the history of cinema is made not only of films, but made of memories of films in our minds, films in writing, in newspapers, in books. In the digital age the relation is not the same anymore. But for most of its history, cinema was mostly made of invisible films. Cinema could only be seen in movie theaters when there are the new releases, well, and that is all. There were some places, like the Cinémathèques, like this Filmmuseum, where it was possible to see all of the films, but basically the production was invisible. And you certainly remember from Godard’s HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA [1988–98] his reference to Henry Langlois, the founder of the French Cinémathèque. Godard says that Langlois was kind of a saint. We admire certain films by Frank Borzage, like THE RIVER , but there were some legendary films that were not visible at all. And so, really, what is important for me, it also means that cinema has been made by the spectators and also by the viewers—what the viewers kept in their minds and by what they transmit. Of course, now, the situation has changed. If you take the HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA, you have a very well done index and you can see, which clips are quoted by Godard, and you can try to search for the title and sometimes you have the surprise to see those invisible films that are right there in Godard. So this is what it means to me: invisible cinema. But it also means of course the bad side, the flip side of the coin, so many films that are hardly visible, so many films that get out of visibility very quickly and are increasingly shown at those kinds of places for real specialists. This is what I can say at first sight about the notion of invisible cinema, the invisibility of cinema. It is very important, as the normal idea is that cinema is visible, is a spectacle, but it is not, it is not a spectacle in a way, it is a mental thing. I don’t mean this in the specific sense of Deleuze. Cinema is a mental thing and we participate in this mental thing.
B.R.: There is also a provocation in this title, which relates to the fact that cinema among the arts is of course the most visible, since it is probably the only art that is able to create what you call a “dominant fiction.” Basically everybody in society can relate to cinema. This goes for literature maybe to a similar degree, art is already a more special case, as is music. So the fact that cinema is so highly visible is probably also a factor why people have started to think about the provocative notion of other aspects of it. Maybe it has become necessary for cinema to become somehow invisible to come back to its proper sense?
J.R.: I think so, but the importance of cinema as a spectacle has probably been overstated. From the beginning, with the books of Lotte Eisner or Siegfried Kracauer, the relationship between film and Nazism was a little bit too strongly highlighted. And that was taken up by Godard. There has been this idea that cinema was something like the big narrative art, imposing the will of the dictator because it itself operates by imposing its images. I really think that it has been overstated. Cinema did not really play that role in totalitarian ideologies. If you think, for instance, what happened in the Soviet Union, well, there was the idea of the avant-garde filmmakers that cinema could be something like the world view, the view of the new world. But it was not the view of power.
B.R.: But you have been thinking about the capacities of cinema in historical terms in a very specific way because, as I understood you, you have always been trying to get at certain capacities of cinema that have been underrated in the common discourse. And this also relates to the time when cinema began which is really late in relation to all the other arts. Maybe you can say a few words about this relationship between literature and cinema, how they create fiction and what might be the difference between these two ways?
J.R.: I think the main difference is that literature did not only make fiction but literature was the elaborate fictional form. Cinema, in a way, inherited some forms that had been created by literature. The form of cinematic temporality had been anticipated in realistic 19th century realistic novels, as was, for instance, the interest of cinema in small things and details. Little by little, literature, I think, was effective. As you know, in the past there was the idea that poetry really gave the frame within which arts had to be thought of. What happened with literature in the modern sense is that literature broke all of those constraints that were imposed on poetry, but on the other hand literature was still the place where the possibilities of narration and also the use of time was experienced before cinema came. So, of course, cinema came late and came with ambiguous aspects: was it a tool for scientific experimentation, was it just some kind of tool for attraction and entertainment, was it a way to reproduce art or artistic performances? Nobody knew exactly. Which also means that cinema happened at a time when there was this big utopia of the new art, the art of light, the art of movement, which would replace the old, bourgeois art of narrations and stories and characters, the heartbroken people. So I think cinema came late and it came late in a world where some of the possibilities had been anticipated. Thus, there was some kind of utopia waiting for cinema.
B.R.: What would that utopian thing have been? Can we find it at a certain historical moment in the 1920s where they were looking for a cinéma pur? Do you mean something like that, or are you referring to a more general sense of utopia?
J.R.: Of course, there were some historical figures; you can think of Jean Epstein in France, you can think of Sergej Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov in the Soviet Union. But there was a more diffuse utopia. The idea that with the new technical equipment it was possible to invent a new art that would not be the old art of stories and love. This is why I started my book Film Fables (Talking Images) with this extraordinary text by Jean Epstein from the 1920s—saying, really, this is the new art because it is the art of truth. The camera is the true artist that cannot lie and can see what ordinary artists do not see. There was this dream and this dream at the moment could coincide with a political dream. I did a lot of work on Dziga Vertov and what I think is interesting in him is that, well, it was not simply an artistic program, it was not simply an idea of cinema serving the revolution. No, it was a program of a kind of coincidence. The film was supposed to create communism—yet, with Vertov this combination of actions, of movements creates communism as a kind of sensory palpable reality.
B.R.: Let us go back one step for a second. A recurring aspect I find very interesting in your writings is when you describe how, in the 19th century, the novel goes through a kind of transition and Madame Bovary by Flaubert is kind of the peripety of this. You say that in this moment the novel as a form becomes democratic because it changes its inherent hierarchy of representing things. I was wondering whether cinema is or would be capable of a similar transition of becoming “democratic.” Would it be because of its technological dispositive, because the camera registers the small details anyway, or would it also, like in the case of Flaubert, depend on the intention of an artistic subjectivity?
J.R.: Well, of course, both are linked, you know. The point is, I think, the novel becomes democratic first and foremost because it registers the apparition of a kind of new kind of social individual. Madame Bovary is not a simple, silly tale of the petite bourgeoise. No, she is the woman of the people who thinks that she can live the life of passion, of art, of ideals. This is, I think, really the novelty of the novel. This is linked to a kind of subversion of the hierarchy. The tradition of the belles lettres is the subversion of this kind of hierarchy—some people were allowed to feel this way and to others it was absolutely impossible to feel this way. So the hierarchy was really separating ways of being, of inhabiting the sensory world. This is what is brushed aside with this apparition, this kind of new social character, which also means the transformation of the novel’s temporality, of its focus. This existed before cinema. The paradox is that it also existed in a prose that tried to register this new way of inhabiting the sensory world, and, of course, it implied a certain kind of approach of writing itself. The camera can register the sensory world directly. I think this was a problem for the cinema, and that is what I tried to say in Film Fables. In a way, cinema was too rich and it had to become poor.
B.R.: We tend to say it was 1895 when cinema was invented but in fact it was a long time before that and it took a long while after that until cinema had found itself. Yesterday, in a lecture here at the Filmmuseum Noam Elcott made a point that cinema as a building, as a location, as a site was in fact already there because it was realized in Bayreuth in the Festspielhaus by Richard Wagner. And cinema just had to realize that it had to go into the same building, and in 1912 it had made the discovery and then we had the film palace and cinema came home, in a way. What do you make of this notion? You also speak about “Gesamtkunstwerk” in relation to cinema.
J.R.: First you must consider that the form of the palace in a sense was very common at that moment. It was a time when there were big theatres for popular spectacles, musicals or others. It was popular entertainment, but it had the form of the palace. The palace was not necessarily a sign of high or bourgeois art. That is the first point. The cinema in the movie theatres at the beginning of the 20th century has nothing to do with our movie theatres with 50 seats, with each room being dedicated to a specific audience. No, it was a big palace, if we look only at the building itself. As to the relation of cinema to Gesamtkunstwerk, I think it is not so simple because it is only with the apparition of the talkies that it became possible to imagine cinema as the art of the synthesis of all arts. And it is true that cinema was born in a time when the idea of a synthesis of arts was very powerful—it was not only Wagner. So many forms of art at the beginning of the 20th century were related to that idea of a new form of art that would be a kind of connection of a multiplicity of different kinds of performances and techniques. Of course, cinema was born in that context. In a way, cinema became something like a popular Gesamtkunstwerk because if you think how Hollywood cinema was made as this conjunction of a scenario, a story, but also of music, a new way of performing for the actors, and also, if you think of the importance of camera operators, most of them coming from Germany or from Mitteleuropa. Cinema was in fact importing artistic novelties just to make them serve the old art of stories. But if you look at some films of the 1930s, 1940s, you are impressed because in a way not only were people able to enjoy great symphonic music they would not have listened to in their day-to-day lives, but they could also become acquainted with new ways of distributing lights on the screen and lights in a scene. In a way there was some kind of legacy of artists of Western art that was condensed in some classical Hollywood films.
B.R.: As you mention films from the 1930s: Bazin famously said that 1937 was the peak of classical Hollywood, and critics like Pauline Kael looked at the comedies of the 1930s by, say, Frank Capra, and said, this is the way in which we are democratic in our art of cinema. Because if we look at these people, at these women and how sharp they are talking and these men how suave they are moving, this is the way we should be as a people. In your logic, this view would be considered strictly representational. But is it still possible that you could agree on a notion of democracy as these people saw it. Or is that too simple?
J.R.: I think that democracy in film is not simply a matter of recognition. There is this idea of the relationship between the viewers with people like them—I am not sure it worked that way. For me democracy means that ordinary people can enjoy an art which is entirely an art of shadows. So I would insist that for me democracy is not about self-recognition. Democracy is rather about estrangement: being able to take part in the enjoyment of shadows.
B.R.: I had an hunch you would answer like this. Very prominently in your work, you have this notion of three regimes: ethical, representational and aesthetic. Very important in terms of becoming democratic would be the representational regime, which we have to overcome in order to open up possibilities of being democratic. Is not the cinema, or at least the commercial cinema, in itself by definition a representational cinema, also in your sense of the word?
J.R.: I think cinema has always been a kind of mix. It could be at the same time a perfect representational art, and in a way cinema was in the 1920s and 1930s the art which insisted in the tradition of representation at a moment when the novel, for instance, tried to break it—the very time of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce or Hermann Broch. In a way, cinema did exactly the contrary. It reintroduced the logic of narration, the logic of differentiation of genre. But at the same time cinema was always an ambiguous art because it is never very clear, how the story functions. There is always this tension between the narrative and the visual, and if you think what happened in Godard’s HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA—when Godard takes the shots from the narrative—it is not only a kind of stroke made by an individual, it is part of the history of cinema. Cinema was a narrative art, but a narrative art within which images and moments could be isolated and could be enjoyed separately. This is what happens when cinema becomes a thing of memory. I do not want to make a strict equivalence between democracy and aesthetics. Cinema was a kind of mixed art with the possibility that the visual creates a deviation, a deflection in the normal course of the narrative. So it is a kind of self-contradictory narrative in a way.
B.R.: Maybe we can take a little detour now because we do know just a few things about your personal genealogy of thinking in terms of cinema. You started to go to the movies very early, and you started to think of the relation of movies to your philosophical work very early. I remember an interview in Cahiers du cinéma in 1976 on Robert Kramer’s MILESTONES  for example. When did you start to go to the cinema, and when did you start to think about cinema as part of your philosophical work?
J.R.: I do not know exactly if I have a philosophical work and if cinema is part of my philosophical work. That is the first point. The second point is that I started being interested in cinema before having some sort of political commitment and before knowing that I was about to become a philosopher. I started becoming some sort of a cinephile in the late 1950s, early 1960s, just because in my classes there was someone who was a fan of cinema, of that famous place in Paris, the Mac-Mahon cinema, which was the place of cinephiles. Which also means that it was about worshiping Hollywood cinema. It was a time when the great filmmakers in the cultivated opinion were Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini—people who dealt with high-minded subjects and with a certain self-affirming aesthetic and ambition. But to cinephiles, this was nothing, this was old shit. Real cinema was Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann, George Cukor. So my education in film was within that tradition, which was expressed at that moment in magazines like Cahiers du cinéma. So I knew this cinephile culture, which in a way was some sort of provocation in face of the norms of high culture. What became really important to me was thinking of this role of cinema as an art which was made mostly by the spectators. There were no norms and it was really created as an art in this polemical way, saying that what is artistic in cinema is not the high art of things that are normally art. At the same time, of course, this cinematographic culture was very far away from the political or philosophical culture of that time. On the one hand Marx and Mao Tse-Tung, and on the other hand Anthony Mann. And so the problem was how to connect Karl Marx with Anthony Mann. What happened later, in the 1970s, when the Cahiers du cinéma started to approach me, was that it was a moment when the relation of Anthony Mann to Marx became topical. Among the films they proposed me to see was MILESTONES by Robert Kramer and John Douglas. For me there is something in this film that takes up the legacy of a certain scenario of Hollywood cinema. It is about how we become a community. So I tried to think of the link between so-called political films and about the relationship of those militant films of the 1970s with the tradition of cinephilia. There was a moment when it was possible for me to make something of my Mac-Mahonian culture. There were many films that tried to rethink history in a political way, like NOVECENTO [1900, 1976] by Bertolucci. What interested me was the link between this way of doing or trying to do political films in Europe in the late 1970s with national cinematographic, artistic and historical and ideological traditions.
B.R.: Let us go back to this moment a little earlier because it has implications for the topics of this week in general. The moment when you actually were a Mac-Mahonian, or maybe also a Hitchcocko-Hawksian. There are a number of ironies in what happened at that moment. At the same time I see it as a kind of paradigm for what you later started to call the “distribution of the sensible.” I think what you have around 1959 in Paris is a very first strong redistribution of a certain part of the sensible. Like you already said: “What is art in cinema?” Or: “What is right in cinema, what is wrong in cinema?” And the people of that time started to say, like you just mentioned: “Raoul Walsh is a lot better than Antonioni.” This is a classical example of the redistribution of the sensible. The second interesting point which I would like to add was that it also happened at a museum, at the Cinémathèque francaise, which was—although it was very casual—nevertheless a museum. In a passage in an interview you gave, you drew a very sharp line to what happened with these redistributions in the end because they were picked up by commercial cinema again. It happens all the time. The commercial logic always eventually re-occupies everything of interest. “The commercial eventually always wins,” you said in one of your interviews. Do you still think so? Is this a pessimistic notion that we cannot get past?
J.R.: I do not think that I ever exactly said this sentence, or perhaps it was a bad moment in the history of my own thinking. I think you probably mention this interview with Antoine de Baecque. I said that what we had known in the 1960s was also a kind of blurring of the borders. The films that we liked we had to either see in the Cinémathèque or in very far away, remote movie theatres in the periphery. There was a kind of “écart,” a kind of gap between two places—the Cinémathèque and some ugly cinemas in some ugly neighborhood in Paris, before everything has become gentrified as it is now. What was interesting was precisely that we could get away from the museum at a moment when cinema became recognized as an art and was integrated into high culture. At the same time, there was this formatting which means that the industry knows which films are for the grand public and which films are only for the film buffs. But the problem is that the industry has become so clever and could integrate so much of what was marginal or subversive and in a way, also the history of cinema itself. Over perhaps the last 30 or 40 years commercial cinema became very sophisticated.
B.R.: It would be interesting to ask what it might actually mean today in our contemporary situation to distribute or re-distribute the sensible. In cinema, we have had examples where people tried to do something that decidedly had nothing to do with the dominant fictional mode of cinema at all, for example certain avant-garde movements in the 1960s, like Stan Brakhage. But even these strategies have been picked up, for example by music videos. So I was wondering if you might have an idea where in cinema something might happen, maybe in a place like the Austrian Film Museum, a cinémathèque in a city like Vienna, or maybe at a festival in Ouagadougou or wherever? Where people go and make an experience for themselves that would be similar to what you described in Proletarian Nights where a man who makes shoes finds the discourse of a priest and adapts it for himself?
J.R.: Well, it is quite difficult because of course there was a time, when there was this kind of availability of so-called high culture. In the 19th century France Balzac’s novels were published as feuilletons in newspapers. There was also a different relation to the museum. People could get into a museum not exactly knowing what they would be going to see. The possibility of discovery rests on the possibility of seeing something different from what you thought you were about to see. This becomes very difficult today because there are so many institutions, so many people, so many specialists exactly telling you if this is for you or if it is not for you. I think that the museum is, or was, historically speaking, the place within which the very status of what we call art has changed. Paintings or statues had been created to celebrate the prince, or to serve the faith in God, or to decorate aristocratic houses. And they were being displayed so people did not really know what was on the walls and what they were seeing. Of course, it was a very different time, a time where there were no cultural institutions in a way, no pedagogy. There was a moment in the 19th century when the museums became kind of afraid because there were so many people visiting, and nobody exactly knew what they were doing with this. In London’s National Gallery, for example, there was this moment when they were really anxious about all those people. Maids were coming to the museum with children because it was raining outside. It is the same with the gentrification of theatres in Paris in the 1860s. There was a decision that it was not possible to have this kind of mixed place. Places had to be either devoted to art or devoted to drama. So there was this moment of expulsion of this kind of mixed people. Of course, later on, people said: “Oh, how terrible, there is high culture but people do not know high culture, and we have to educate them, and we have to find a way for them going to the art place or the art going to the banlieue. It was a moment where workers and emancipation and these things happened in that context. Well, now we have a very highly sophisticated specialization for art places, and it is very difficult but I think it must be possible to think about how Proletarian Nights can become possible again. In a way, you know, John Ford can be a good example, for instance.
B.R.: I am still thinking in terms of recognition—we are not American, we are not Cowboys, we do not deal with the border between law and righteousness anymore, we probably do not recognize ourselves in Henry Fonda. But how do we look at a John Ford film these days? What do we see in it? What is it that might open up ourselves that could change us to become more democratic?
J.R.: Well, I am not thinking that we must find democracy in any film. I am not sure that people in the 1940s were recognizing themselves in Henry Fonda or James Stewart. We must not think of it in terms of recognition. What I find interesting in John Ford is the way in which he tries to reconstruct historical moments, figures or characters in terms of attitudes, in terms of gestures. Which is why I wrote this article that became some kind of advertising material now in the Film Museum, a handout [laughs]. The article is called “The Legs of the Hero.” Is it possible to think of the cinema of John Ford just for the various ways in which the characters deal with their legs? In a way you can think of it along the idea of the “Gestus” in Bertolt Brecht, but I do not think that you can also think that we become good democrats because we have seen the films of John Ford. But it is also part of a democratic education to go beyond the point of “is it democratic or not?” I like to refer to this text on the theatre by Schiller. Schiller was picking up a point made by Rousseau: What kind of instruction can be given by those plays with ugly and immoral characters, given the idea that theatre should provide some kind of moral education? The answer of Schiller in a way is: Theatre does not provide us with moral education, but it provides us with an education of our senses, precisely beyond the point whether it is useful or not, good or not for the morality. The idea is that what is democratic is the education of the sensibility itself.
B.R.: This is the good point because it helps us and gives us a way to look at classical American cinema. If we look at this film by John Ford, we see a dominant fiction of how white America became supreme in North America. But at the same time, we can look at it the way you suggested by looking at details, gestures, attitudes and the way people move. And this is against the grain of any dominant fiction. So we can see things against this fiction and we see these two things at the same time. This is something I see more and more in commercial cinema, than for example in this kind of representational, socially-critical issue-cinema that you criticized in European cinema sometimes—that shows us the good proletarian taking a little step of consciousness and then this is the message of the film. So maybe industrial cinema leaves even more space to do a little more of this re-distribution of the sensible, producing a work that has more aims within itself at the same time. We as a spectator, as a group, can make something out of it that is against the original intention.
J.R.: I think we can look at it from opposite sides. From the one side you can say: “Well, this is democracy in the novel, or democracy in the film has nothing to do with real democratic action.” But you can also see it from the other side, meaning, democracy in a novel, democracy in a film also means a re-distribution of the ways in which words function and are linked with images, or the way narrations function. I think that is what is important in all these Hollywood films. You can see a Western and say it is just a presentation of the dominant fiction, at the same time, well, it creates some distance. The very fact of being obliged to give some kind of incarnation to the notions of the dominant fiction does something. In order to make an attractive film, you have to displace that in which the characters really follow the line of the fiction. There is a very interesting case with John Ford, which is: what is exactly the case with THE GRAPES OF WRATH ? Because the good political end, the political message at the end was in fact not from John Ford, it was added by Darryl F. Zanuck. The film by John Ford ends with Henry Fonda leaving and becoming an errand character. He becomes a kind of political militant as a ghost. “Wherever people fight, I will be there.” It is a transposition of the words of Christ. “Wherever you break the bread, I will be there.” The politics of John Ford’s films is a way of thinking of real characters who at the same time are a kind of ghostly reality. There is a balance between incarnation and existence of ghostly lives. Zanuck decided to change the end because it was not strong enough, not popular enough. And so he added this end with the mother in the car going on and saying: “We are the people.” It is interesting precisely because you have a film on a very strong political topic and at the same time two, or even three scenarios. There is the scenario by Steinbeck, the scenario by John Ford and the scenario by Darryl Zanuck. It is kind of interesting, to focus on these shifts in the so-called illustration of the national fiction.
B.R.: Interestingly, almost all national cinemas that are not North-American or Indian strive to create an industry which works like the American industry but never succeed. Their aim, or their dream, is—and maybe France is an exception, but Germany certainly is not—to imitate the same mode of fictionality that we see in the American cinema. But let us look at other possibilities for cinema. The most radical form we would have of course in Godard, who said goodbye to cinema or the dominant type of fictionality in cinema several times. I would firstly be interested what did you make of his decision in 1968 to say goodbye to being a filmmaker as an individual? And what do you make of his later efforts to work with cinema as a form of collage and also to give up on narrational cinema?
J.R.: Saying farewell to cinema... well, you know, in 1968, it was not only an individual decision, it was a moment when people thought “I can say goodbye to my work as an artist or to my position as a teacher or an intellectual.” It was part of the mood of the time. Perhaps what was strong at that time was the possibility of these kinds of radical decisions. Of course, radical decisions very often do not last for people who are able to return to their position, to their function, as was the case with Godard. So, there was this moment with that idea that cinema must be made no more by filmmakers and artists but by everybody. There was the Dziga Vertov group, there was also Groupe Medvedkine, it was part of the time. Things go back and we go back to the old situation. But in a way, Godard had really never been able to work in the narrative tradition. Perhaps A BOUT DE SOUFFLE [BREATHLESS, 1960] was a kind of imitation of American cinema...
B.R.: In fact, it is already more of a deconstruction, as well...
J.R.: Perhaps, perhaps. Certainly, it tried to adapt to the representation of contemporary form through forms borrowed from other forms of art, collage, traditions of montage from the 1950s. Each of Godard’s films is a kind of essay. He tries to connect some concerns of the times and some problems of the times with some procedures coming from the history of modern art, the history of cinema. And there is this moment where, more and more in fact, it is the history of cinema that takes a bigger place in his cinema. That was already the case in the 1960s when in VIVRE SA VIE [MY LIFE TO LIVE, 1962] the heroine was looking at Dreyer’s Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. The young prostitute woman is looking at the saint. It became more and more systematic, this kind of confrontation of contemporary concerns, of modern ways of making images and of images coming from the whole history of cinema. It is still present in his very last film ADIEU AU LANGAGE [GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, 2014].
B.R.: Which has a particular feature because it is in 3-D, and it is not an everyday industrial 3-D. Do you think that this 3-D is just a one time gimmick, or does it actually add something to Godard’s project of going to the end with narrational cinema, so that it maybe in a way becomes sculptural instead of a movie proper?
J.R.: I think it is something like a new attempt or a new form of essay film or a new form of an attempt in creating some kind of new object. As you mentioned, it is not the normal use of 3-D because it is not there to create this feeling of a three-dimensional space as a space of narration, so it has nothing to do with the 3-D art of creating this absolute depth which was actually a dream of André Bazin. In ADIEU AU LANGAGE, it looks like you have some kind of sculptural object coming in your direction, while you have the screen of cinema going backwards. So it is very strange. In fact, there are two dissociations. First the dissociaton of the foreground which in fact is a kind of sculpture when you have the head of the dog really going towards you. It is like a sculpture positioned in front of the screen. And then you have the screen going backward at the same time. You also have a dissociation when the camera goes from one character to another character, and the screen is totally blurred. So, I think, it is not a gimmick, but it is an attempt of creating some kind of object because with Godard there also is this utopia of the installation. This idea, perhaps, that cinema can be installed. There was that exhibition, which was not really a success, this exhibition of Godard in the Centre Pompidou in Paris...
B.R.: “Voyages en utopie” in 2006...
J.R.: It showed his fascination for a new technique and for how you can use this new technique. When I met Godard personally the very first time, he was thinking about this film ADIEU AU LANGAGE. He was not at all thinking of making it in 3-D, I remember. And I met him and he showed me a very, very small photocamera and said: “Well, now we can do films with this kind of camera.” So, in a way, there is the poetic construction of the objects and later there is the addition of the 3-D, which transforms the film into a kind of specific object, playing precisely on this axis of video installation. A mix of the image on the screen and of the sculpture occupying a space.
B.R.: It is funny because in a conventional 3-D film, they like to shoot arrows at you to make you feel the effect very much, and Godard shoots paroles at us. I think that this kind of installation in his most recent film suggests the ones that we have been told about for a long time now will come in the near future: virtual realities where the images actually happen in front of our very eyes, very close to our eyes and we will actually carry the image and we will be the sculpture of the apparatus of the image. It seems to me he might also be thinking about this. This brings me to a question which would allow us to slowly wrap this up. You have this term “imageité” which refers to certain types of pictorality or images, but you have never really stressed a big difference in relation to the advent of the digital image. In fact, it is almost the opposite. In Le destin des images you say: it is not so much about what type of image we have, it is the operation that counts, what we do with the image. Ten years after this book, do you still follow this idea or would you now tend to think that the digital will do more with the image, leading you to reconsider?
J.R.: As you know this book Le destin des images which becomes Die Politik der Bilder or The Future of the Image, according to the countries or the policy of the publishing houses, it was a kind of polemical intervention at the moment when there was the idea that there was a time of the image which was of course the time of the analogue image, which was the time of the image as alterity, as a relation with the world. And now comes the time of the end. With the digital comes the moment of the end of the image, the end of alterity, the end of community and the end of everything. So I tried firstly to make this point: the technical and the aesthetical are not exactly the same thing. A technique can be implemented in very different aesthetic constructions. What was done by video art in the 1980s, what was done with the digital image at that moment, for instance, had very often been dreamed of around the beginnings of the 20th century—precisely about photography, about cinema, about the new technology. So every time a new technical apparatus appears, there is the idea that a new art is possible or, if you have a pessimistic view of the world, that art becomes impossible. So it was a polemical book and the point for me was to emphasize the fact that the image in a movie is not simply some kind of visual reproduction in front of you, but an image that still is a form of relationship. I remember, I commented on the first shots of Bressons film AU HASARD BALTHAZAR . An image is a relationship not just between what becomes before and what comes after it, it is also a connection of times. An image is a kind of connection between a visual form and words. It is a lot of things. An image is an operation, and so the point is whether you know a new technique forbids those operations, and my point was (it was a bit rude, of course) that Bresson’s images are the same whether you see them in a movie theatre or on a DVD or on TV. The images are the same, it means that the operation is the same. Of course, it is not the same, meaning that the efficiency of these operations depends on the conditions of visibility. This means that on my computer, for instance, I received CAVALO DINHEIRO [HORSE MONEY, 2014], the recent film by Pedro Costa. I received a link to see it on my computer—I can see what he is doing and what he wants to do, but of course I must wait to see it on a real screen in a real movie theatre to think, or to feel the efficiency of the operations of the filmmaker. Now perhaps, I would add this point: you can focus on the operations, but you must also focus on the conditions of implementation of the operations.
B.R.: Since this is also an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this institution, “das Unsichtbare Kino,” let us think about a possible event in the future. People come here to this site and have a night created for them, a night in which they can see, for example, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR by Bresson, let us say in ten years or so, in a 35mm projection in this special situation. What do you think could this mean at that time in terms of the memory of a people, which people, if at all, what could it mean for the temporality of this experience? Because the film will then be 70 years into the past or so, it will be far away from contemporary culture. Let’s just try to imagine what could happen in a situation like this, and what might be good or bad about it?
J.R.: Let us take as an example what happened with baroque music and baroque musicians and orchestras. Of course, normally baroque music is also a kind of pigeonhole. But at the same time, it is easier to create connections of baroque music and baroque instrumentation with forms of contemporary music. There are many forms of encounters between music from the past and music from the present. Perhaps something that would not have been possible with a big symphony orchestra or with a pianist playing Chopin. Music of the 16th century can speak to people who have been educated in quite different musical traditions. So I think we are in a situation where all the forms of visual creation and meetings can happen. The problem is how to make these meetings happen? The tendency of the commercial forces, of the cultural institutions goes in the opposite direction. I am just trying to say that we must think about new techniques as opening really new possibilities, new possibilities of doing art, new possibilities of making people hear art. In a way many people learned to love Schubert or Mozart from cinema. It was so-called highbrow music. People who would never have gone to a symphony house listen to this music and enjoyed it there.
B.R.: Maybe there are some Mac-Mahonians here tonight, who will make some unexpected ends meet in the future...
J.R.: I do not know. I am just thinking in terms of possibility, not in terms of predicting the future.
The conversation took place on November 28, 2014 at the Austrian Film Museum.
Rancière, Jacques (2012): Proletarian Nights. The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France , London/New York: Verso.
Rancière, Jacques (2007): The Future of the Image , London/New York: Verso
Rancière, Jacques (2006): Film Fables , London/New York: Berg.